Ask a Lady, Special Edition: Abuse and Parents
Would you have any advice for me? My dad was violent and physically abusive to my mom and me. She died when I was a kid, and that made him more violent. I am now an adult, and have been for many years, and I have been avoiding my dad as much as possible, but I begrudgingly take his phone calls. I’m on meds for anxiety and depression, which I believe is a result of the abuse.
Now my dad is getting old, and he wants to be my best friend or something, and have some kind of loving father-daughter relationship. I am definitely not up for that. What I want more than just about anything in the world is for him to be completely out of my life. On the other hand, he is completely alone. He has no friends, he has not dated since my mom died, and I am his only living family. I don’t want to confront him about the abuse, because I don’t want him to spend his final years contemplating how he abused his wife and only child. I don’t want him to spend his final years all alone with his only child refusing to speak to him, either. He is reasonably healthy, mentally sound, and enjoys a generous retirement plan, so he doesn’t need me for any practical reasons.
I don’t want to make his final years horrible, but it is horrible for me to even talk to him. What do I do?
Hey girl. Abuse is such a confusing betrayal, isn’t it, especially when it comes at the hands of someone who was supposed to be one of your first and best protectors? I 100% get why this is such a conflict for you, because no matter what he’s done, he’s still your father, and so your heart stays hooked. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s biological, maybe it’s a cultural-biological fucked up wire mother thing (I will never not talk about wire mothers). The upshot is that no matter what else has happened, you keep feeling like maybe things will change and he will become the father he should have been all along. (Pretty sure this is a fantasy that all abused/abandoned children have as long as their parents are still living.) You keep feeling like somehow you owe him your fidelity, your loyalty, your love, even if he so clearly violated his parental obligations to you. And you probably also feel a little disgusted every time you have these surges of involuntary love/obligation/desperation.
And so here we are. You’re a Grown-Ass Lady who has been saddled with the task of grieving and untangling years of trauma and confusion and pain, and now, long after you needed him, your dad wants a piece of you.
So what do you do? I want to address both the circumstances under which you WOULDN’T do anything for him and the circumstances under which you might. And in both cases, I think there’s ample room for you to speak your piece.
What really strikes me about your note is that if you were to try to have a relationship with him, there would be pretty much nothing in it for you, nothing for you to gain. It would, as you envision it, serve his needs exclusively. And if that’s the case, for fuck’s sake, do not put yourself through misery and anguish for him. You did that for him for years. You do not need to continue to protect him from himself, bear his pain and suffering for him, or spare him the consequences of his own choices. Because it sounds like that’s what you’d be doing. I’m not saying you would continue to suffer his abuse, but under these terms, you would both be re-enacting that relationship.
You do not owe him a thing. Sure, it’s sad that he’s alone in his last years, but whose fault is it that he has no friends? Whose fault is it that he hasn’t had an intimate relationship? Whose fault is it that his only child doesn’t want to speak to him? Whose fault is it that he was unwilling to get help when he needed it? The quality of his final years is on him, sisterfriend, not on you. He has built the life he has, and he could have chosen differently. Why should he spend the final years of his life not having to contemplate how he abused his wife and child? You will spend the rest of your life contemplating it no matter what he does. Why does he get to be free?
And yet. Since he probably spent years blaming you for the quality of his life, of course, like an old broken bone that aches when it’s gonna rain, part of you is itching to take the blame again. It’s familiar, isn’t it? You don’t have to take it on again. If the only reasons for you to do this involve meeting your father’s needs, fuck it. Fuck him. And I would tell him exactly why you feel that way, too. I’d tell him that he abused you and you’ve spent years trying to heal from it, that you don’t owe him anything, that he’s gotten the life he’s built for himself, that love is not enough.
But it’s also possible to get something out of this if you really want to, I think. I mean, ideally you would get what he owes you: his contrition, his sorrow, his apology. Ideally you would get that from him. But we both know that’s a (very rich) fantasy. What I want to focus on instead is what you can do for yourself in this situation, what you could get from a relationship with him that doesn’t rely on him or open you up for more disappointment. Because you are (and it bears repeating) a Grown-Ass Lady! You raised yourself! You don’t need him to take care of you in order to get what you need! (Proud of you, girlfriend.) And you don’t have to forgo your own care on his behalf anymore.
So here is what I want you to think about: what would it mean to go ahead and try to have a relationship with him without trying to protect him from his own pain or from recognizing or acknowledging yours? What would be meaningful for you? What would you want? What if you told him that you were willing to try to have a relationship with him, but that you can’t do that unless the two of you acknowledge and address his abuse? Of course, he might not be willing to do that. He might, for example, deny that he ever abused you. And then you’ll know that there is no way for you to get anything valuable from a relationship with him — but you will also have said the unsayable thing to him. You will also have told the truth about your relationship to the person who most needs to hear it.
If you do end up writing to him — either to set boundaries for a possible relationship or to foreclose it as a possibility — I would do it by writing a letter. A real letter, a handwritten and dropped in a mailbox letter. I suggest this partly because he won’t be able to react immediately — to hammer off a shitty email or yell at you or hang up on you. It’s a way to protect yourself. And once you’ve written the letter, you have done your part. However he reacts is up to him. But you have done what you can do, and maybe, at the very least, you’ll feel a little bit freer.
And finally, because I am just A Lady and not a trained profesh of any kind, I also wonder if you are in therapy. A therapist could be a great support for you as you move forward with this and work through your relationship with your dad (because there IS a relationship, even if he’s not participating in it) now and in the future.
I’m so sorry that it’s not over. I wish more than anything that it could just be over for you, whether you choose to open yourself up to him again or not, but it’s not over. In some ways, it never will be. Which is why I think you deserve a chance to tell the truth while he can still hear it, even if he doesn’t want to. You deserve it. You deserve it. You deserve it. I swear to you, you do.
Previously: How to Get Over Heartbreak.
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